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The Baldwin Hills Dam Break



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Save the Date: Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4, a get-together at Janice’s Green Valley in Kenneth Hahn State Park, recalling the Baldwin Hills Dam break exactly 50 years ago.

On any afternoon, the sounds of health-minded hikers and cross country runners trekking up and down the hills and city-bound children at play, fill the hollows of Kenneth Hahn State Park, giving all a sense of country-like serenity in the middle of our urban setting.

But it was much different 50 years ago. Our nation was coming out of its shock of having to bury President Kennedy three weeks earlier. On the afternoon of Dec.14, 1963, there was a small trickling sound of water that was not supposed to be heard coming from a dam, a rush to repair the small crack, then a shouted warning.

Finally, the deafening roar. Death and destruction.  A huge wave of water rushed down the ridge through a secluded Los Angeles neighborhood.

The Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed with fury of a thousand cloudbursts, sending a 35-foot wall of water raging down Cloverfield Avenue, slamming into homes and sweeping away cars in its path.

The 19-acre reservoir/earthen dam built to supply drinking water for thirsty Westside residents ruptured at 3:38 p.m. as a pencil-thin crack grew to a 75-foot wide chasm, and 292 million gallons of water surged down the hillside.

The flood raced downhill, northward, leaving a thick, V-shaped muddy path roughly bounded by La Brea Aveue, Jefferson Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard, killing five people and destroying 277 hillside houses and apartments.

It took just an hour and half for the reservoir to empty. But it took a generation for the neighborhood below the dam to recover and twenty years before the Baldwin Hills rise would be utilized again.
The deadly cascade caused an unexpected ripple effect still being felt today in Culver City and the Westside.

The disaster foreshadowed the end of the urban-area earthen dams as a major element of the Dept. of Water and Power’s local water storage system and prompted a tightening in the oversight of the Division of Safety and Dams and its control over reservoirs throughout the state of California.

The live television broadcast of the ongoing disaster from a KTLA-TV helicopter is considered the precursor of the airborne news coverage we routinely see every day.

County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn proposed the reservoir-area be turned into the park. Only in 1977, did he finally convince Vice Pres Walter Mondale to reuse the federal land as a public park.

The Baldwin Hills State Recreational Area was opened in 1983. It was renamed the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in 1988 in honor of his lifetime of preservation efforts.

Mr. Laase may be contacted at GMLaase@aol.com

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